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Apple confirmed key specs needed for iPhone AI, and it’s a big deal for iPhone 16 upgrades

Published Jun 20th, 2024 6:50AM EDT
iPhone 15 Pro Max Screen
Image: Christian de Looper for BGR

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It’s been nearly two weeks since Apple unveiled Apple Intelligence at WWDC 2024, a massive AI upgrade for the iPhone, iPad, and Mac. Yes, the Vision Pro seems to have been left out intentionally. It’s been nearly two weeks since I installed iOS 18 beta 1 on my iPhone 14 Pro, but I can’t run any AI features.

First, Apple Intelligence isn’t part of the first iOS 18 beta. That will come later this summer. Even then, Apple would not give us all the AI features it unveiled at WWDC. Some of them will come later this year, and the smarter Siri assistant I want will drop only at some point in 2025.

Even if Apple Intelligence features were available in beta 1, I would not be able to run them. My 2022 iPhone is simply too old for that. Even the base iPhone 15, which practically matches the power of the iPhone 14 Pro, isn’t good enough. Anyone looking to take advantage of Apple AI features on iPhone will need an iPhone 15 Pro/Max or later.

After plenty of speculation, we finally know the two key specs for this first version of Apple AI. As I’ve correctly guessed, iPhone RAM plays a key role in running Apple Intelligence on the iPhone. Even more important is the Neural Engine, which has to be fast enough to process those requests.

During John Gruber’s live podcast from WWDC, Apple explained that it’s not limiting AI to make you buy a new iPhone 16 for Apple Intelligence. Greg Joswiak joked that if that were the case, it would have done it with the recent iPads and Macs.

All iPads and Macs that run on M-series chips will support Apple Intelligence. If you still rock M1 iPad Pro, M1 iPad Air, or 2020 MacBook Air and Pro models, you’ll get Apple Intelligence via Sequoia later this year.

The Neural Engine

It’s the power of the Neural Engine that’s a key factor for running AI on the iPhone. Here’s John Giannandrea’s remark on it again:

The inference of large language models is incredibly computationally expensive. So it’s a combination of bandwidth in the device, it’s the size of the ANE (Apple Neural Engine), and the oomph in the device to actually do these models fast enough to be useful. You could, in theory, run these models on a very old device. but it would be so slow it would not be useful.

Let’s examine the evolution of Apple’s Neural Engine over the past few years. First, here’s what the iPhone 14 Pro/Max can do with the Neural Engine in the A16 chip.

The Neural Engine in the iPhone 14 Pro's A16 chip tops at 17 trillion operations per second.
The Neural Engine in the iPhone 14 Pro’s A16 chip tops at 17 trillion operations per second. Image source: Apple Inc.

The A17 Pro’s Neural Engine more than doubles that performance. We’re looking at speeds of 35 billion operations per second for the chip inside the iPhone 15 Pro and 15 Pro Max.

The Neural Engine in the iPhone 15 Pro's A17 Pro chip tops at 35 trillion operations per second.
The Neural Engine in the iPhone 15 Pro’s A17 Pro chip tops at 35 trillion operations per second. Image source: Apple Inc.

The M4 iPad Pro probably gives us a taste of the Neural Engine that Apple will build into the iPhone 16’s A18 and A18 Pro chips. It’s somewhat faster than the A17 Pro and supposedly more efficient:

The Neural Engine in the M4 iPad Pro reaches 38 trillion operations per second.
The Neural Engine in the M4 iPad Pro reaches 38 trillion operations per second. Image source: Apple Inc.

The iPhone RAM

The iPhone 15 Pro/Max models are the only one rocking 8GB of memory. All the iPads and Macs with M-series chips also have 8GB of memory. I speculated recently that RAM is a big issue for running Apple Intelligence on older phones than the iPhone 15 Pro/Max.

Then, an insider provided additional insight to prove that’s the case. Ming-Chi Kup said that on-device AI models like the ones Apple probably needs for Apple Intelligence require 2GB of RAM dedicated to the AI. Only the iPhone 15 Pro/Max can spare that much RAM.

Craig Federighi confirmed in the same interview with John Gruber that RAM is an issue. He said it’s not just the Neural Engine, “it’s many dimensions of the system,” and “RAM is one of those.”

Apple rarely addresses the RAM on the iPhone. Apple never mentions the amount of memory in iPhones when discussing its specs. That’s why I don’t have slides from previous iPhone launch events like the ones above showing the evolution of RAM on the iPhone.

However, iPhone leaks before those events and teardowns that drop on the handset’s release date usually reveal the amount of RAM.

The iPhone 16 upgrade

iPhone 16 prototype leak from early February.
iPhone 16 prototype leak from early February. Image source: MacRumors

Rumors say all four iPhone 16 models will feature 8GB of RAM. If you’re considering an upgrade this fall, like I am, you might want to see what Apple has to say about Neural Engines. That could be the key detail for choosing an iPhone 16/Plus or an iPhone 16 Pro/Max.

The better the Neural Engine, the better future-proofed your iPhone would be for Apple Intelligence features, especially if RAM is identical across the four models.

You could also look for a cheaper iPhone 15 Pro/Max model this fall, but Apple usually discontinues the previous-gen iPhone Pros when launching the successors. Carriers and electronics retailers will still stock the iPhone 15 Pros, however.

Apple confirmed that the iPhone’s Neural Engine and RAM are key specs for Apple Intelligence, somthing to consider when buying an iPhone 16 this fall.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.